Lindsey Graham’s failed attempt to channel Ronald Reagan

A few days ago, after Russia downed a U.S. drone, Lindsey Graham said the U.S. should do what he believes Reagan would have done: Shoot down any Russian aircraft threatening a U.S. asset. However, a veteran of the Cold War experienced just such a scenario and wrote to let me know that Reagan would not have countenanced Graham’s suggestion.

Here’s Graham’s imaginary take on Ronald Reagan’s approach:

Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Graham what would have been America’s Reagan-era response to a drone takedown, courtesy of the Russians.

Without much deliberation, Graham said, “Well, we should hold them accountable and say that if you ever get near another U.S. aircraft flying in international waters, your airplane would be shot down. What would Ronald Reagan do right now? He would start shooting Russian planes down if they were threatening our assets.”

In response, I received an email from someone who served during that era (and who proved his bona fides to me). For professional reasons, however, he asked to remain anonymous. The following is his analysis of the Reagan-era way to deal with in-air Russian threats:

“Senator Lindsey Graham needs to choose his words carefully. He is drawing lines in the sand that have the potential to lead us to WWIII. After the recent downing of a U.S. Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) by a Russian SU-27 fighter, he proposed shooting down any Russian planes approaching our aircraft in international airspace. He further opines that this is what President Reagan would have done.

“I disagree with Senator Graham’s assessment as to what President Reagan would do. In the early 1980s, I was an Electronic Warfare Officer and Mission Director flying Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) missions. We flew RC-135s (modified Boeing 707), collecting Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) in international airspace. I have attached a photo from one such mission in October 1983.

“I took the photo, from the RC-135’s overwing hatch. It shows a Soviet SU-15 Flagon fighter aircraft sitting off our wingtip over the Sea of Japan. We were unarmed and he was heavily armed, as you can see. Under Senator Graham’s proposed rules of engagement, we should have had F-14s or F-15s shoot down the Soviet fighter because he approached us in international airspace.

“Mind you, this photo was taken less than a month after the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (Boeing 747) after it accidentally overflew Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island. The Soviets claimed they mistook Flight 007 for an RC-135. In fact, the fighter in the photo was from the same squadron that shot down the 747.

“Many Americans were killed by that awful mistake, including a U.S. Congressman. The Soviets were embarrassed and were condemned by the entire world, but President Reagan did not start WWIII over this incident and did not try to shoot down Russian aircraft in international airspace for simply approaching U.S. aircraft.

“Make no mistake, the Soviets did not like us being in the area. They used aggressive tactics against us, similar to what they did against the RPA. They would fly underneath us and pitch up suddenly in front of our noses or “thump” us by pulling in front of us and then lighting their afterburners to shake our aircraft violently. We were careful to maintain our course and not provoke them in any way. We filed formal protests but did not escalate the situation.

“My point is, the Russians’ recent aggressive actions are nothing new. In my opinion, there is a good chance it was simply pilot error that the Russian fighter ran into the RPA. We don’t know what damage was done to the Russian fighter. He could have easily lost control, similar to what happened to a Chinese fighter when it collided with a Navy EP-3 in 2001. It would be a risky maneuver to do on purpose. I think Senator Graham should take a step back before proposing dangerous rules of engagement that could trigger WWIII.”

My correspondent’s point is that, while we must be ready, willing, and able to defend ourselves, because it is dangerous to be too weak, the last thing we should do is rush the U.S. into a full-on hot war with a nuclear power over an ambiguous interaction. And that’s the Reagan-era way to do things.

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